State lawmakers weigh in on year of unemployment difficulties, defend LeVine

Dec 5, 2020, 8:03 AM
unemployment benefits, audits, unemployment tax...

Douglas Christopherson of Poulsbo is going on his eighth month in unemployment adjudication.

Originally laid off from the construction industry in April, he has been told multiple times while in the review process that essentially amounts to financial limbo that it all comes down to an error.

“Every single time that I’ve talked to somebody [from the Employment Security Department], they’ve mentioned that it’s a mistake, and that it’s been overlooked,” he said.

Weeks after he was promised his claim would be expedited and that an adjudicator would be in touch shortly, Christopherson, frustrated by the silence, decided to get on the phone with Employment Security himself earlier this week.

Family waiting on unemployment forced to ‘sell everything out of house’

He said that he waited on hold, got through to a staffer, and was in the middle of being transferred to a supervisor … when the call dropped. No one called him back, so he started the process again. After “10 to 15 tries,” he said, he got through.

“Once I got through, it took about two-and-a-half-hours again to wait … when I finally got through to somebody, they expressed there was nothing they could do, that their supervisor was on lunch, and that they were not supposed to transfer me to anybody,” he related. “Even though the last time I talked to somebody, they were in the process of transferring me.”

He said that he pressed the matter with the person on the other end of the phone, but this did not end well.

“She continued to get angry with me over the phone, saying that I needed to calm down when I was literally just asking questions, trying to get some answers … after her getting very upset at me, she hung up,” he said. “No matter who you are, you don’t hang up on someone — especially if you’re a government agency.”

This day of back-and-forth frustrations illustrates just a fraction of what Douglas and Samantha Christopherson, along with so many others, said they have gone through with ESD this year. As of this week, nearly 28,000 Washingtonians are waiting for their unemployment claims to be processed.

Ideas for policy solutions

It’s a year that has seen around $575 million stolen by fraudsters (about $350 million of which has been gotten back), reported communication issues during state audits, and an unemployment backlog that has left applicants like Douglas Christopherson waiting months for information, let alone funds.

State legislators are looking ahead to the coming session in January to plan how the system could be improved to prevent another 2020.

Rep. Mike Sells (D-Everett) of the 38th Legislative District chairs the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee, which oversees ESD. He pointed to security improvements as a way to prevent another fraud attack.

“I think what the department has learned is tighter cyber-security protocols — those things are going to cost money,” he said. “And I think they’ll probably come into the next session.”

Another financial investment that may come up in the session is additional ESD staff members.

“It’s a system under stress, so that tells us something about staffing levels, and maybe what we need to do in terms of those staffing levels,” he said.

Unemployed Washingtonians still waiting for answers, some told to send money back

Rep. Gina Mosbrucker (R-Goldendale), who represents the 14th Legislative District, serves as the ranking member of Labor and Workplace Standards. She believes that what the state’s unemployment system needs most of all is a way to help people fill out unemployment forms.

As she pointed out, so many of the unemployment difficulties — from being stuck in adjudication to outright denial — are caused by a person answering one question on an unemployment form wrong. Because many people are not able to get through to ESD on the phone, they are not able to get clarification on how to fill those forms out.

“We need to educate them, we need to serve in some capacity to help them walk through the forms … educating and being more supportive in filling out the forms so that we don’t have those unresolved claims, because many, many times, it’s just something simple that was checked that they didn’t understand,” Mosbrucker said. “There’s got to be a way for those who do understand to help those who need help — maybe some helpline that actually would answer the phone.”

She suggested that in addition to a phone helpline, volunteers in each county or Legislative district could set up socially-distanced help sessions, perhaps outside of libraries.

Mosbrucker said that she personally has been working on the phone with her own constituents who have had ESD issues.

“They wanted to hear a person, and after going through that whole dropped-call-high-call-volume, just that voice was really reassuring,” Mosbrucker said. “And I may not have been able to solve it right away, but I could hear them, and I could listen to their story.”

Defending unemployment system leadership

Despite the issues at the Employment Security Department this year, some legislators are defending its commissioner and staff.

“Everybody is working as hard as they can. The system has had problems, but most have been addressed,” said 33rd Legislative District Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), who chairs the Senate’s ESD oversight committee, Labor and Commerce. “[ESD Commissioner] Suzi LeVine has performed as well as anybody could, and better than most.”

She said the number of constituents contacting her over unemployment problems has significantly gone down in the past few months, and noted that ESD has “climbed out of the hole.”

While she observed that there have been some “bumps in the road” recently with ESD’s communication to her committee, she said this is being improved with weekly phone calls.

Working Washington report calls Employment Security ‘system failure’

Sells does not see replacing LeVine as the be-all-end-all solution to ESD’s difficulties; he noted that the problems with a system not designed for this volume of applicants would still be there with or without her, and training a new person during a crisis would create a new set of challenges.

“The question you always have to ask is, ‘Okay, so the governor makes a decision and moves someone else on — how would that make it different?'” he said. “You’ve still got a problem there with the system. Is the commissioner a person of goodwill? I would say yes — I think she’s trying.”

And Mosbrucker may sit across the aisle from LeVine’s party, but she refuses to start apportioning blame.

“It’s going to take all of us, not so much pointing fingers, but just taking hands, and saying, ‘Okay, what can we do next?'” she said, adding, “It makes it more difficult when we don’t help each other. That’s not a typical Republican answer, I understand, but I’m there to serve, and that’s what I’m there to do — and I serve everyone.”

Unlike Keiser, Mosbrucker doesn’t feel the state is “getting much of a handle” on unemployment, but she is confident that “everyone is doing the best they can do in a bad situation.”

“It’s a difficult job — I wouldn’t want her job right now … I think Commissioner LeVine is doing what she can,” Mosbrucker said. “She has called me numerous times, we’ve discussed solutions.”

A ‘dismal’ holiday season

In the meantime, as the Christophersons wait for information, the couple does not know how they’ll make it through financially in the coming weeks.

“It’s really counterproductive trying to provide for our family, having to spend days on the phone, not knowing what’s going on, it’s the holidays, it’s very stressful from every angle,” Samantha Christopherson said.

They have both been able to find some part-time work, but as it’s in the event rental industry, those hours are few and far between. Their background is in the food industry — also not a promising field in which to find work amidst the new restrictions.

The couple has gotten assistance with rent this month, and is living on savings — but those funds are drying up.

“It’s quickly dwindling, just in time for what is a hard holiday season for our families … What should be a happy time for everyone is probably one of the most dismal times we’ve ever faced,” Samantha Christopherson said.

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State lawmakers weigh in on year of unemployment difficulties, defend LeVine